There’s nothing Goofy about Disney’s foray into the resort business on the island of O’ahu, about 25 miles from Honolulu. Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, opened its doors in 2011, spread across 21 gorgeous acres of oceanfront property with 359 rooms and more than 480 villas. Its friendly vibe has made it a very popular spot for families. But what happens when a couple – without children in tow – go there for a holiday?
My partner Brian and I gave it a whirl. We knew going in that Aulani puts families first, especially kids, who can spend their day at a water park located in the heart of the resort. Kids run down the hallways of the hotel and down the pathways to the fountains, lazy river, tunnels and the rainbow reef. They lose their little minds with excitement.
Fortunately, there are a wealth of places where a mature twosome (i.e. grown children left at home). The Wailana Pool is the exclusive domain of adults ages 18 and up. It’s far enough from the high-pitched hysterics of youngsters splashing their way through the water park so that you don’t hear anything but the chirping of the birds and rustle of the palm trees in the breeze.
The two-terraced oceanfront whirlpool spas at Alohi Point are just for big people, too. They are perfect venues for sunset gazing, complete with infinity edge that makes you feel like you can reach out and touch the Pacific Ocean. Families are welcome to hang out at the other three whirlpools on the grounds.
Of all the peaceful spots at Aulani, my favorite was the Laniwai Spa. Services cater to all, but private suites are best suited to families with kids ages 5 and up. And if I was a 10 year old again, I would have loved the treatments designed specifically for youngsters, like the Keikimahine o Aulani, which includes hairstyle with flower and sprinkle of pixie dust, tiara, makeup, manicure and pedicure. There’s also the Painted Sky Teen Spa for tweens from 13 to 17. Pampering for all!
Since I’m a grown up, I was happy to opt for a massage to kick off my stay. As part of my treatment, I got to create my own body scrub, made with sea salt at the Pulu Bar – what the resort calls “a spa mixology station.” The herbs, macadamia nut oil and other delicious smelling ingredients turn into something truly luxurious with help from my spa attendant who mixes and measures my selections.
I could have taken my bespoke scrub back to my room to enjoy, but I kept it on hand so that I could scrub up at the Kula Wai, a large area with various types of showers and soaking pools. The outdoor space was a slice of paradise of its own.
There were plenty of quiet nooks and comfy loungers, perfect for post-treatment snoozing. It’s one of the prettiest spas I’ve been to. And the sound of kids screaming around the pool area was nowhere to be heard.
At the on-site restaurants, I was positive I could see parents having their first grown-up conversation together in eons, thanks to the Aunty’s Beach House, a club where moms and dads could safely park their kids ages 3 to 12. (Online registration is required two days before arrival.)
Most activities are complimentary – costume dress up, hula lessons, making space goo (if you’ve watched Lilo & Stitch you understand), crafts and songs. The mix changes daily to prevent young ones from getting bored. Premium experiences cost extra. They may include close encounters with the resort’s resident aquatic life or a surfing themed afternoon with Chip and Dale.
While the kids are being amused, parents can hit one of the bars and restaurants. If romance is in the air, then ‘AMA’AMA is the place to dine. This elegant eatery has the best views of the ocean and those legendary Hawaiian sunsets. The Hawaiian-with-a-twist menu leans heavily on steaks, pasta and seafood (some of the freshest you’ll find in the U.S.)
For cocktails, The ‘Ōlelo Room is a lively space with live Hawaiian music and a wickedly good lineup of tropical cocktails, like mai tais and piña coladas. Pair with some pupus (appetizers) like kalua pork sliders and poke (marinated ahi tuna).
Guests who have visited Disney theme parks may notice a more subtle approach to branding here. While you can still eat pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse ears and have your picture taken with Goofy at a character breakfast, the look and feel of Aulani is relaxed and more focused on being true to its Hawaiian setting.
In true Disney fashion, this property pays a lot of attention to details and to getting them right. From the beauty of soaring lobby to the lush gardens, it’s clear that it’s going beyond just lip service to reflect and honor Hawaiian culture. Even The ‘Ōlelo Room slips in an educational element by decorating its walls with Hawaiian words and three-dimensional wood carvings to illustrate them. By the time you have your third Mai Tai, you’ll know how to say things like cat, book and flower.
All that care creates an immersive experience that makes you forget there’s a shopping mall and fast-food chains just a short drive away. You really do feel closer to Hawaii and its culture. It’s easy to understand why readers of Travel + Leisure magazine voted Aulani, the world’s best family beach resort.
And even if you don’t have kids in your travel party, it’s a heck of a good time. You can just chill during your stay, or go full tilt and sign up for everything from sky gazing with an astronomer or surf lessons. However you decide to shape your stay, it’s impossible not to be touched by some of that Disney magic.
Michele was hosted by Aulani, but as always, her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos courtesy of Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa.